Whether you prefer to go to a farm to pick your own with friends and family or rise early on a Saturday morning to discover your local farmers market treasures, nothing beats the taste of summer produce from area farms and orchards. Here are some native foods you must try.
One of the most delicious blueberries, the Rabbiteye blueberry, calls North Carolina home. The berries on this blueberry bush turn pink before ripening to blue, hence the name Rabbiteye, reminiscent of the furry creature. The popularity of this native Southeastern berry is also good for the native bee, the Habropoda laboriosa, which specializes in pollinating this bush. Most Rabbiteye bushes are grown organically, since these blueberries rarely require spraying for pests.
Although indigenous to North America, blueberries only became popular during the early 20th century, when a New Jersey farmer found a way to develop the Northeastern highbush blueberries into a crop. This is the blueberry sold in area grocery stores. Local blueberry farmer Lacey Wiley notes, though, that Rabbiteyes are superior in taste to the highbush because they are "naturally sweeter."
Wiley and her husband Chris own TLC Blueberry Farm in Monroe. They grow five varieties of Rabbiteyes: Brightwell, Climax, Powderblue, Premier and Tifblue. The last two are particularly popular among Southern blueberry aficionados. The Wileys sell both the berries and plants at their farm; the local season is only four weeks, beginning in June. When the berries ripen, the Wileys open their farm for picking every Saturday from 8 a.m. until 1 p.m. (Blueberries are $3 per pound.) Added bonus: The Wileys also sell their homemade blueberry ice cream at the farm. To find out opening and closing dates, send an inquiry via their website. 3318 Greene Road, Monroe. www.tlcblueberryfarm.com.
Many people are unaware that 90 minutes north of Charlotte is the 106-year-old Levering Orchard, specializing in cherries. Levering, primarily a you-pick orchard, is located off the Blue Ridge Parkway in Ararat, Virginia. Unlike peaches, (provided) ladders are needed for most cherry trees. Levering has 32 acres of cherries with 44 varieties, from sour to sweet. Due to the April 16 freeze this year, owners Frank Levering and Wanda Urbanska expect a short crop of sweet cherries, but a full crop of sour (pie and baking) cherries. Sour cherry pick season begins mid-June. This orchard has peaches and apples, too. Levering Orchard, 163 Levering Lane, Ararat, Virginia. Fruit hotline with produce availability and hours: 336-786-4316. www.leveringorchard.com.
The white-flesh sprite melon is native to Japan, but has become an alternative crop to tobacco here in North Carolina. In the 1990s, the N.C. Specialty Crops Program developed a sprite melon specifically for the climate. Sprite is about the size of a grapefruit and is unusually sweet, with 18 percent sugar content. For optimal sweetness, pick a melon with a cluster of brown stripes called "sugar cracks" ringing the stem end.
Farmer Brent Barbee of Barbee Farms has been growing sprite melons for five or six years. He says he tells potential customers "a sprite is crisp like an apple, textured like a pear, and sweeter than a honeydew." He gives away a lot of samples at his farm stand and at the Davidson Farmers Market, where he also sells his produce. "Once they taste these melons," he says, "they become extremely popular." Barbee also wholesales his sprite melons to vendors at the Charlotte Regional Market. He expects to have sprite melons available from the first of July through August. Barbee Farms, 1000 Shelton Road NW, Concord. Farm stand hours: Saturday 10 a.m.-4 p.m.; Monday to Friday 10 a.m.-6 p.m. www.barbeefarms.net.
You can't pick October beans, but they are also native to the area. October is a misnomer: Fall shelled beans were once called October beans by residents of Appalachia. But today the October bean is a specific bush bean that comes to market mid-July. The colorful pods and beans are white with pink, red, or maroon stripes. Vendor Carl Leatherman will have October beans in mid-July at his booth in the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market. Carl Leatherman Produce, Building B in the Charlotte Regional Farmers Market, 801 Yorkmont Road.
For most Charlotteans, peaches are synonymous with summer. Only 30 miles southwest of Charlotte is the heart of Peach Country with miles of peach orchards. One favorite spot to pick (or buy) peaches is The Peach Tree Orchards in York, South Carolina. For more than 50 years, farmer Ben Smith has produced peaches on his land. The Peach Tree has 25 varieties, including White Lady, Early Belle, Georgia Belle and China Pearl. Peach season falls between Memorial Day for cling peaches to Labor Day for Big Red freestone. You-pick starts at the end of June; however, The Peach Tree recommends calling ahead: 803-684-9996. The farm stand has an ice cream parlor, too. The Peach Tree Orchards, 2077 Filbert Highway, York, South Carolina. Hours: Monday-Saturday, 8 a.m.-6 p.m.; Sunday 1 p.m.-6 p.m. www.thepeachtreeorchard.com.
Restaurateurs and chefs: If you use regionally or locally-grown Rabbiteye blueberries, sprite melons, peaches, October beans, and/or cherries, email us at email@example.com so we can link to your menu.